Archive for October, 2010

Reclaiming our Rivers: Swimming in the Thames and Medway

October 20th, 2010


Swim at Pangbourne Meadow, 11 July 2010

Stanley Spencer’s 1935 oil on canvas, ‘Sunbathers at Odney’, was inspired by his boyhood swims, in the early 1900s, at Odney Weir, Cookham. Improbable as it now seems, Spencer and other village boys  used to join the ‘city gents’, about to board their morning train to London, for early-morning dips.

Spencer, who was to speak of Cookham as ‘a village in Heaven’, captured his memories of those days in his series depicting the Baptism of Christ. He wrote: ‘we all go down to Odney Weir for a bathe and a swim … I feel fresh awake and alive; that is the time for visitations. We swim and look at the bank over the rushes, I swim in the path of sunlight, I go home to breakfast thinking as I go of the beautiful wholeness of the day’.

Spencer perfectly encapsulates the pleasures of river-swimming. It is a tonic that should certainly be recommended to today’s stressed commuters. Spencer has them lounging about and stretching, all naked and uninhibited, like the dons of old at Parson’s Pleasure. Presumably the real-life commuters, being out of the sight of shockable females, disregarded the late-Victorian convention of wearing drawers, which they may have felt only applied at the seaside. It is a wonderful, innocent scene.

Our rivers today are a neglected playground. Why are people so reluctant? Concerns about pollution no longer apply. There is a horrible condition called Weil’s Disease, spread by the urine of rats and other animals: I am advised by a microbiologist friend, who lets me swim in the Thames from her own private slip at Burcot, that the risk of contracting it is greatest in stagnant waters, where it is unlikely that one would wish to swim. The chances of being trapped by hidden undergrowth are equally slim, as long as one is sensible. The Thames this summer has been deliciously warm, fresh and clean, with a wonderful peaty smell – fun for all the family, though passers-by have often intimated that nothing would induce them to join us. The main hazard is from passing boats, though they are usually extremely careful; and the atmosphere is unfailingly jolly, for those on board share in the secret and all oarsmen seem unconsciously to assume parts from Three Men in a Boat.

This year I have added the Medway to my repertoire of swimmable rivers – a deep, warm, hidden delight, where friends and family and I swam early one morning, before cooking an enormous breakfast on a stove on the riverbank. Such are indeed times, as Spencer knew, for heavenly visitations.

To see an image of ‘Sunbathers at Odney’, visit

For good swimming locations, visit